Sermon: Whose Conversion?

January 29, 2017

Text – Acts 9:1-20

 

We all know about the Apostle Paul, the greatest Apostle in the history of the church, the author of many epistles in the New Testament, and the missionary to the gentiles. Of course, we also know the story about his conversion, as was read to us from the passage this morning. But if we read Acts from the beginning to the end, we realize that Paul is not the only character who experienced conversion. Chapter eight tells us about the Ethiopian eunuch who was converted by the help of Philip. Chapter ten tells us about Cornelius and his family, who were converted at the time of the ministry of Simon Peter. The story of Acts is not just about Paul but I believe it is mainly about the Holy Spirit who unfolds God’s redemptive plan for both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, if we only focus on Paul’s conversion, we are likely to miss another important character in this passage.

There was one more person involved in Paul’s conversion. His name was Ananias. He was a pious Christian who lived in Damascus. One day Jesus appeared to him in a vision, asking him to meet Saul and restore his sight. Ananias had already heard about Saul of Tarsus. He was a persecutor who went from house to house looking for the followers of Jesus, dragging them off, and putting them in prison. Now he was coming for Ananias, his family, and his fellow Christians. Who knows that Ananias was actually happy to hear it from Jesus saying, “Thanks for the heads-up, Jesus! We are going to take our revenge this time for all our brothers and sisters who died in his hand.” If Saul had a potential to persecute more of the followers of Jesus, would it not have been better if Saul died? He was frustrated, afraid, and outraged as seen in his response to Jesus, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” (v.13)

Ananias is angry because Jesus is asking him to go and meet Saul. Ananias is upset because he knows what that means. When people meet together, there is a opportunity of reconciliation and forgiveness. When people block themselves from each other, there is only division and miscommunication. In my work as pastor, I often observe that being present with one another is the best way to resolve the conflict. Just sending email or responding on the social media is an easy way to avoid our contact that might bring two parties together and be healed in relationship. I have heard about a minister who heard many complaints from his parishioner. “I don’t like you sermon. I don’t like your leadership…” The pastor decided to go to the workplace of his parishioner and be with him helping his work for hours. He recounted that his time together with this person brought them together in reconciliation and mutual understanding.

Ananias is upset because he knows that Jesus’ invitation to meet Saul means also to forgive him for what he had done. In 2007, there was a horrifying incident that shook the U.S. – a massacre of 32 students and faculties at Virginia Tech University. When the news first identified the shooter as an Asian male student, I just hoped, “Please not a Korean. Please not a Korean.” The next day, the news released the photo of the shooter as a Korean student – Seung-Hee Cho. Many Asian students at Boston University seemed worried because there would be any regulation or even ban on the international students. As I look back the event, I think that it was such a stupid hope that I wished that the shooter would not be a Korean. Many people do not know whether I am a Korea, Chinese, or Japanese. What differences would it have made? If any, there would be regulation on the international students as whole because what mattered was that we were strangers and different in this society.

But we see that Jesus is persistent with Ananias. Jesus said to him, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument!” God was going to use Saul who was the great enemy of Christians as God’s vessel to bear a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I strongly believe that this is how God works in this world. When people mocked Matthew because he was a tax collector, Jesus called him as one of his disciples. When people hated Zacchaeus calling him “a sinner,” Jesus called him first and forgave him saying, “Salvation has come to this house.” When the Samaritan woman at the well tried to avoid the public because of shame, Jesus comes and meets her offering the living water. God turns someone whom we consider less likely to be used by God into the chosen instrument through which the kingdom of God will be proclaimed. God never abandons those we call “outcasts,” but calls them in order to entrust them with a great mission.

So Ananias went and entered the house where Saul had been fasting for three days. Saul does not even know who just entered the house. He had become a blind. He was weak because he did not eat or drink for three days. If Ananias could finish all tragic death of his Christian brothers and sisters by Saul, this was the time to end it all. But Ananias calls Saul, “My Brother Saul.” and then he said, “The Lord, Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” A miracle happened. Saul’s eyes were healed. More surprisingly, he was baptized in the name whom he had long despised. Ananias forgave Saul for what he had done to the people of God. I believe that if Ananias did not forgive Saul from the depth of his heart, Saul would not have been healed, commissioned, and baptized with the Holy Spirit.

This was not just Saul’s conversion. It was also Ananias’ conversion. It is by the grace of God that we come to know Christ and believe that he is our Lord who forgives our sins. Whether you were first led to the church by your grandparents or mothers, you received the good news in Christ that he forgives us and embraces as God’s children. That is not what we work for. That is a gift from God just as Saul met Christ on his road to Damascus. Saul who did not believe now becomes a believer to go out and proclaim who Jesus is. That is conversion. But for those who believe in Christ, the story does not end there. God still works in us increasing the grace in us. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be more like Jesus in his love for God and love for neighbors. Ananias meets Christ and experience growth in his love for enemy through forgiveness. That is another conversion – change that happens us not only dramatically but also gradually.

After the Virginia Tech tragedy, I read that people put 33 memorial stones, not 32, for the victims on the grass of the school. One of the stones is for Seung Hee Cho, the shooter. A woman named Barbara left a card and flower on his memorial stone. The card reads, “I feel bad in knowing that you did not get help that you so desperately needed. I hope that your family will find comfort and healing. God bless.” Also on the news I saw another woman saying, “Love can overcome.” When tragedy like that happens, people ask question, “Where is God?” “If God were alive, could not God have prevented something like this?” People talk about the absence of God in the midst of tragedy. However, I believe that we witness the presence of God in the midst of tragedy when people are brought together in forgiveness and reconciliation.

If you have anyone whom it is difficult to forgive, I invite you to read works by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He says, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger. However, when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out of the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.”[1]

Albert Tomei is a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. A young defendant was convicted in Judge Tomei’s court of gunning down another person in execution style. The murderer had a bad record, was no stranger to the system, and only stared in anger as the jury returned its guilty verdict. The victim’s family had attended every day of the two-week trial. On the day of sentencing, the victim’s mother and grandmother addressed the court. When they spoke, neither addressed the jury. Both spoke directly to the murderer. They both forgave him. “You broke the Golden Rule – loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You broke the law – loving your neighbor as yourself. I am your neighbor,” the older of the two women told him, “so you have my address. If you want to write, I’ll write you back. I sat in this trial for two weeks, for the last sixteen months I tried to hate you. But you know what? I could not hate you. I feel sorry for you because you made a wrong choice.”

Judge Tomei writes: “For the first time since the trial began, the defendant’s eyes lost their laser force and appeared to surrender to a life force that only a mother can generate: nurturing, unconditional love. After the grandmother finished, I looked at the defendant. His head was hanging low. There was no more swagger, no more stare. The destructive and evil forces within him collapsed helplessly before this remarkable display of humaneness.”[2] Here, I disagree with Judge Tomei. I do not think that this is a display of humaneness. It was a moment of the kingdom of God breaking into this world when we the followers of Christ forgive others as Christ has already forgiven us for our sins against God and others.

In the midst of these conversions of both Saul and Ananias stands Jesus. He is the One who first appeared to Saul to forgive him and commission him as his witness. He is the One who said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He is the One who came to this world to reconcile us to God. He is the One who showed us how to love our God and our neighbors. This is the Good News, beloved. Because we have Jesus, we can forgive and reconcile with our neighbors. Because we have Jesus, we can step out of our own tradition, background, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and rejoice in God’s presence. Because we have Jesus who showed us how to love God and our neighbors, we can go out to the world with confidence that God loves God’s people and God’s creation. As Jesus told his disciples to be the light and salt in the world, we have to shine the light of Christ in this world. The light that blinded the eyes of Saul but changed his whole life – The light that led Ananias into the reconciliation with Saul.

 

[1] Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Marina Cantacuzino, The Forgiveness Project.

[2] “Touching the Heart of a Killer,” New York Times (3-7-97)


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